Mique returns to her Southern roots

Chamique Holdsclaw is in a good place in all senses of the words. The New York native has made her home in the South – the roots of her beloved grandmother – she can be on Pat Summitt's doorstep in under three hours, she will play basketball before appreciative fans with an orange tint, plus the red and blue hues of her new team in Atlanta, and she has finally found peace.

The Lady Vol legend took some time Friday to handle media interviews – she officially signed her contract with the Atlanta Dream this week – and talk about where she's been and where she's headed.

She conducted a Q&A with the league that can be read at the WNBA's website.

She also spoke by telephone with Scout.com's Tennessee site, and the conversation was sprinkled with laughter and stories – such as when good friend and former teammate Kellie Jolly Harper put her on a horse and how she still keeps in touch with Semeka Randall and Tamika Catchings, who along with Holdsclaw, were known as "The Meeks" at Tennessee.

The Dream's season opener is June 6 against, appropriately enough, the Indiana Fever, which will place Holdsclaw and Catchings on the court together again, albeit as opponents this time.

Single-game tickets to Dream games are on sale now at: Atlanta Dream tickets.

The trio led Tennessee to a 39-0 record in the 1997-98 season and the program's third consecutive and sixth overall national title and remain a part of Lady Vol lore. Despite the lapse of 10 years since her playing days in Knoxville, Chamique Holdsclaw still feels the love of Lady Vol fans.

"The fans have really supported me throughout my career," said Holdsclaw, who was aware of the message board devoted to Lady Vol basketball at Scout's Tennessee site.

"Even the places like Facebook and MySpace I get constant hits from Tennessee folks always checking on me, how I'm doing, how they miss me, how much they appreciate me," Holdsclaw said. "Even going to the season ticket holder event the other night for the Atlanta Dream, Tennessee fans came and they were like, ‘You know we're so happy that you're coming back, and we watched you play one time when you played in D.C. but now you're back and we're here and we're definitely going to buy season tickets.'

"This has been happening every other day when I'm out. It feels like I run into someone from the orange and they're like, ‘We're coming to a game. We're so excited that you're here.' I just appreciate the support."

The support for Holdsclaw from Lady Vol fans has never wavered – she is recognized as one of the best players to ever wear orange and a banner with her retired jersey No. 23 hangs in Thompson-Boling Arena.

The 6'2 forward, who is returning from retirement from the WNBA, will wear No. 1 for the Dream, which went from an expansion team a year ago to contender this summer with Holdsclaw, former Lady Vol Michelle Snow of the now-defunct Houston team, veteran guard Nikki Teasley and top draft pick Angel McCoughtry of Louisville on the roster.

Holdsclaw, with career WNBA numbers of 17.7 points and 8.3 rebounds a game, said she doesn't feel any pressure this season but instead thinks the team will benefit from combining good times with hard work. She is rehabbing a knee injury sustained in Poland – she had surgery five months ago – and the Dream staff have said they will ease her into the rotation to start the season.

"Just kicking back and enjoying it and enjoying each other and just having fun with it," Holdsclaw said. "Let's go out there and have fun and play hard. I think for this team, having veteran leadership, we have a lot of players eager to prove themselves. It's going to be interesting. We just have to get that chemistry and get on the same page and just go out there and compete."

Having fun in the WNBA will be a nice change of pace for "Mique," who turns 32 years old in August. She was the top draft pick of the Washington Mystics in 1999 and went to a team that rarely won and had changed coaches basically every season.

Her grandmother, June Holdsclaw, who had raised Chamique since she was 11 years old in Queens, N.Y., died unexpectedly in 2002 of a heart attack at age 65, just days before the WNBA season began.

After a tough start to childhood – Chamique later talked openly about her parents' addictions – a long period of continuity and stability from June Holdsclaw to Pat Summitt was suddenly jolted for Chamique with the death of her grandmother.

"I went up and spoke at the funeral and was there for Chamique," Summitt said. "She and I became very close after she left here, and she was playing in the pros. I knew she was struggling, and I spent some time with her in D.C.

"I think she's got her life together, and she's happy now. I think the loss of her grandmother was more than she was prepared to handle at the time. It had a tremendous effect on her."

Holdsclaw soldiered on and shoved her personal pain aside – leading the Mystics to the conference finals that summer – until two years later when her grandfather passed away in 2004. That death unleashed a flood of emotions for Holdsclaw.

"Everything was a trigger," Holdsclaw said. "It hit me really hard. It was something I tried to handle and be strong for my family. That's always been the type of person I am. Move on and try not to think about it too much. But then it just hit me. It brought back so much. It really hit me. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I am overwhelmed.' I really didn't know where it came from. That is what I was trying to figure out. It had been almost two years after my grandmother had passed."

Holdsclaw took a leave of absence from the Mystics in July of 2004 and was immediately the target of rumors as to why she had left the team. She made few public remarks, tried to slip away from the public's scrutiny and sunk into a deep depression that had been building over time.

"At first I was embarrassed," Holdsclaw said. "When I left the team, now that I look back, I wish I had been upfront about what happened, just came out and said it, but I was embarrassed and I kind of just retreated. I didn't know how to handle it. I didn't want anyone to think I wasn't OK because us athletes we're so strong and we can handle anything, you know? It's something people can't see.

"The criticism and the things that you hear that was probably the hardest part for me. I'm from New York so I've heard a lot of trash talking and people criticizing folks – that's just the way I grew up – but when you're going through something so sensitive and so personal it really hit me to hear people say, ‘Oh my God, she's bipolar, she's this and she's that.' In some instances these were people who had never met me. People were just judging and being judgmental. That was really tough for me."

Holdsclaw later openly talked about her clinical depression in media interviews. She spoke about it as a public service and made a video with medical writer Jeanne Blake for Words Can Work, an online resource guide for adults and children dealing with depression and other medical issues. An excerpt of Holdsclaw's video can be viewed at: Words Can Work. Summitt also made an appearance on Holdsclaw's behalf.

Holdsclaw cited Summitt's support as a source of strength for her, especially when she was caught in the throes of depression.

"She's always been really supportive for me in my career and outside of basketball," Holdsclaw said. "I really look to her, and she's always been there for me. She's been there. I'm just glad that I have someone like her in my life because that's from day one."

Holdsclaw returned to the league in 2005 and needed a fresh start so she was traded to the Los Angeles Sparks. In 2006 she needed to take a brief leave because of a severe family illness – by now the family really leaned on Holdsclaw with her grandparents having passed – and then she retired in June of 2007 for physical reasons.

"After I went through that time with my grandmother I promised myself to always do what I feel in my heart and learn to express myself," Holdsclaw said. "When I was in LA, my knees were hurting and I'm trying to communicate it, and it was lack of communication."

Holdsclaw assessed the situation, knew she needed an extended physical recovery, realized that would not happen in Los Angeles and took some time off from basketball. Her successful battle with depression had taught her to take care of herself and trust that she knew what was best. So, she decided to take summers off in 2007 and 2008 and spend the fall and winter months overseas. Holdsclaw had played in South Korea and Spain and spent the past three years in Poland.

"The cultural experience has been amazing," Holdsclaw said. "How many people can say they go and live in foreign countries seven months? They don't have a worry because they give you houses, they give you cars. You're assimilated into the culture. The teams are like cults. They support their teams. Their support is always there – women's basketball, men's basketball, men's soccer – it's just unbelievable. I have had the opportunity to play for some really great clubs.

"It's been a great experience. Imagine going to a supermarket and you have to kind of like figure things out. It's not in English, so you're like, ‘OK, that looks like cabbage.' I played in Poland for three years so by my last season I'm able to go in the supermarket. I understand some words. I can sort of speak to people a little. You grow and I feel like if you can do something like that, it really helps you grow as a person."

Holdsclaw opted to make her off-season home in the Atlanta area, a rather apropos choice considering June Holdsclaw's childhood roots in Alabama and love of the South. She had wanted her granddaughter to attend Tennessee, in part, because it was in the South, and she wanted Chamique to experience that culture. Summitt's home visit to Queens with then-Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss, sealed that wish.

"I remember when she came to my house," Chamique said of Summitt. "My grandmother looked me in the eye and she said, ‘I like her, and you're going to Tennessee.' It basically wasn't even up to me. She was like, ‘You're going, and that's where I want you to go.' It really paid off. She knew."

Could Holdsclaw, who learned to play basketball on the competitive courts of Astoria Homes against guys, have imagined she would one day choose to live in the South?

"Not at all," Holdsclaw said with a hearty laugh. "It's kind of shocking. It's like everything is coming around; it's like coming basically full circle. Coming back to the South is kind of like where I started my basketball career. I know I went to school in New York but basketball for me really, really started with going to Tennessee and playing competitive basketball and then I go away and it's like, ‘Hey, I'm back here in the South.'

"I just love it. I love how nice the people are. I love the weather. It's a great place for me to be. I love New York and always will and I love the big cities like LA, but those are not places where I want to make my home right now."

Holdsclaw's best friend at Tennessee was Kellie Jolly, now Kellie Harper – Holdsclaw was in her wedding – and she went home to Sparta, Tenn., with Harper while both played for the Lady Vols. Harper and her mother put Holdsclaw on a horse and, ironically, on the day of this interview a friend had asked her if she wanted to go horseback riding.

"I was like, ‘Man, I am not getting on a horse.' The last time I was on a horse was at Kellie Jolly's house in Sparta and I got on that horse," Holdsclaw said. "I'm a city kid. I've never ridden any horses. It's trotting and then it starts galloping. I was so nervous."

Holdsclaw laughed when reminded that Jolly was lucky that her teammate had held on. Both still had a season left at Tennessee and had the All-American tumbled off a horse at the point guard's Middle Tennessee farm, the head coach would have been none too happy.

Harper, who had been at the helm for Western Carolina, was hired this month to replace the late Kay Yow at North Carolina State as head coach of the Wolfpack.

"I had texted her – Kellie and I always try to keep in touch with texts and emails because we're both so busy – but I texted her when the job wasn't confirmed and I told her I was really excited and she deserved it," Holdsclaw said. "When I found out she got it, I had to call her and congratulate her. I always knew Kellie would make a great coach. She was just a great person, and I'm happy for her. I'm happy for all the Lady Vols that have gone on into coaching."

Holdsclaw couldn't help but giggle about former teammate Niya Butts now being the head coach at Arizona. Butts had a delightful sense of humor while at Tennessee – she was the one who kissed the ground in "The Cinderella Season" video after getting off a plane – and sometimes had a quizzical look on her face when Summitt was at her most intense with the team.

"Wow, like Niya Butts, a head coach," Holdsclaw said, still laughing. "I was excited about that. Niya was the one when Pat would talk or do stuff, she always took it in, but she was looking at her like she was kind of crazy, so now to realize how much we've learned and to be able to go on and be successful coaches to me means a lot.

"Coach Summitt is definitely a part of that discipline and support. As a player she's there, but you don't really appreciate her until you leave Knoxville and you're away three or four years and it's like, ‘Wow.' We've been blessed to have her in our lives."

Pat Summitt and Chamique Holdsclaw (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Holdsclaw still exchanges email with Randall – now the head coach at Ohio University – and caught up with Catchings in person this past season when both played in Poland. She maintains regular contact with her former coach and came to Knoxville last summer in between overseas trips.

"We text and I was in Knoxville visiting with her last summer," Holdsclaw said. "Coach Summitt, she is one of those people when you play for her – a lot of the players talk about it – you think she's your worst enemy. But then as you start to grow up in the world, you realize how she was preparing you. She's a great motivator and a great example, a role model."

Summitt laughed out loud when asked how long it takes for players to realize there is indeed a method to her madness.

"She came up last year and spent a weekend here," Summitt said. "I cooked for her, and we had people over here. (Soccer superstar) Mia Hamm was here while she was here. It was just great to have that time to just sit and talk and reflect and talk about what she was going through.

"She knows I'm here for her. They all finally figure that out. It's just a matter of if they want to reach out at any point in time."

Holdsclaw won't be able to make visits this summer. She'll be too busy with her new team in Atlanta, the one organization that could lure her out of retirement and back into the WNBA.

"Just the comforts of being home," Holdsclaw said of what tipped her decision to return. "I live here in Atlanta. Going to some games last year I liked how the fans supported the team and not to mention there are a lot of women's basketball followers and there is a big community of Tennessee fans here. It's exciting to come back and play where I live and be in the comforts of my home, to have that support and to have people that appreciate women's basketball."

The window of earning opportunity can sometimes close quickly for a female athlete in a team sport, but Holdsclaw has been playing professionally for a decade.

"It's a God-given ability," she said. "I am just trying to conquer one thing at a time and not look too far ahead, but I know I am committed to the team for the next three years and that is my main focus. This may really be my last professional contract here in the United States. That puts me at 34 (when the Dream contract expires). Now, if God blesses me with a few extra years in there, I'll take them."

This remark, like the entire interview with Holdsclaw, reflected her optimism. Her frequent laughter and lighthearted remarks reflected a joie de vivre that had too often been absent from Holdsclaw's previous stints in the WNBA. She is now someone at peace as a player and a person.

"Definitely," Holdsclaw said. "It's like those two years of being away and being able to do things I wanted to do in life and being able to be with my family and my friends … Life happens so fast. I'm playing basketball in New York City, and it's fun. We're doing AAU and traveling. Playing at the University at Tennessee, and it's instant success. Basketball really became popular at that time having the three Meeks and the undefeated season and, for myself, winning three championships in a row. I jumped into that. Then I jump into the WNBA, number one pick.

"It was going, going, going. I really hadn't had that time to sit back and breathe."

Now, Holdsclaw has time to exhale and enjoy the life she has created in suburban Atlanta. Her Twitter page at Chold1 mentions playing board games with friends and taking her dogs to the park. Her successful battle with depression and willingness to talk about it also earned her some new admirers, young and old.

"I get it all the time, especially when I'm out around town, at the gym, emails, online," Holdsclaw said. "Kids saying thank you and thank you for being strong and expressing how I felt."

There are another group of "kids" that could benefit from some input from Holdsclaw. Current Lady Vol Shekinna Stricklen, who will be a sophomore next fall, was 8 years old when Holdsclaw won her third title at Tennessee but Stricklen has said Holdsclaw was her favorite former Lady Vol. Even a decade later the Tennessee legend still resonates with the youngsters.

Tennessee's season ended with a 22-11 record and an unprecedented first round loss to Ball State in the NCAA tourney.

"I watched a little bit of the game against Ball State," Holdsclaw said.

Summitt heard immediately afterwards from former Lady Vols – many of whom were angry – but Holdsclaw, with the benefit of 10 years out of college and the perspective of profound loss, saw the big picture.

"It was very tough, but they are so young and that's what I texted Coach Summitt," Holdsclaw said. "I was like, ‘Coach, they are going to be so good.' But they just have to realize in the back of their minds, they're young but they're good. You have a tradition to follow. You have to have that swagger and that confidence.

"The uniform you put on it speaks for itself so whether you're ready or not everyone is going to come at you hard, and I think they just have to realize. I'm sure Coach told them, but that was my perception. When I looked at the players they had, they're good players. Even though they're freshmen and sophomores, it's like, ‘Golly, that name Tennessee is across your chest so you've got to be ready to just go hard.' "

Holdsclaw doesn't know yet what her plans will be when the WNBA season ends – she is used to heading overseas in the fall – but if she remains in the area she would like to make a trip to Tennessee to see firsthand the team assembled to carry on that Lady Vol tradition.

"I'm going to see what the future brings," Holdsclaw said. "I went from my door to Coach Summitt's house in two and a half hours. It was quick time so I was like I can definitely get up to Knoxville a little bit more to see my friends. I haven't met anyone from this class but Alex Fuller (the now-departed fifth-year senior), so I definitely have to come up and meet the next generation of players.

"It's like a mother. You get tired of your mother telling you to do this all the time. Sometimes you need someone else, someone to talk to you and motivate you a little bit. Definitely if I have the time I will get up there to help out."

Summitt would welcome Holdsclaw back - she noted Sidney Spencer and Dominique Redding have made appearances - and said Mique would have a similar effect as Alexis Hornbuckle, who challenged the current team this past month and showed the players some attitude the second she stepped on the court.

"To have Chamique come back is just like Alexis' presence, Sidney, Dom," Summitt said. "But Alexis is one that doesn't hold back on words, just her working out and challenging some of our players – I know she really challenged Glory (Johnson) – but I think the time that she spent here was tremendous for this team, and I think they have a better understanding of what it takes to play here."

Holdsclaw's serenity at this stage in her life is a source of happiness for Summitt, who will always hold a soft sport in her heart for, as she calls her, "Grandma June," and her granddaughter who became the first-ever Lady Vol from the state of New York to play for Summitt at Tennessee.

"I'm extremely happy for Chamique and really proud of her ability to move forward," Summitt said. "I think she is at peace with herself now. She knows what she wants to do, and she is very happy and it's been great to see her from her struggles to now being at a good place in her life, very confident, very self-assured and also very motivated.

"She's persevered, and she's back playing, and she's happy."

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